Looking a decade ahead, it strikes me that museums probably on the surface are not going to change enormously. I think the patterns are pretty well established for the next decade or two: programs of exhibitions, public education and acquisitions, which nowadays museums tend to put second or third. Some 10 years ago, you would always have put acquisitions first. Times have changed, as have auxillary activities.
How they might change in the next 10 to 20 years depends, it seems to me, on what I view as the single most important challenge that museum directors and administrations face in the future: In the face of severe financial constraints, and increasing public interest in the museum, how do you maintain standards? How do you maintain values? How accommodating will we be forced to be in setting priorities? How will we be accommodating to financial and public pressures? How do we balance budgets, and at the same time, retain integrity of purpose? How do we satisfy the public's ravenous appetite for art, especially easily apprehendable art, without compromising quality? How do we fashion a program of intellectual honesty and rigor, in the face of increasing dependence on revenue-producing operations and attendant growth? How will the exhibitions program be determined 10 years from now? Will funding be available for esoteric exhibitions? Would an exhibition that was still possible a year and half ago, of Abbott Suger and St. Denis at the Cloisters, have been funded, and will it be funded 10 years from now?
Part of the answer to that is not only in corporate support. We were unable to find corporate support for that exhibition. I didn't expect that we would, and I don't think it would have been really justifiable to expect, which is one case one can make for the government sector. But we did find, to put on this very esoteric exhibition of the crucible of gothic art, a single donor from the board of trustees.
But boards of trustees will change. The giant established fortunes of the past are being dispersed among many heirs, and I don't know that somebody 10 years from now will come to the rescue of an exhibition in which the catalogue has as many footnotes as it has entries. By the same token, the exhibition of central Asian art that is now open at the Metropolitan, funded by IBM, was really to the last moment, a tremendous gamble. This is the kind of exhibition that is either esoteric, if very few people attend, or a blockbuster, if it is immensively popular. I think both IBM and the Met, to a certain extent, took an enormous gamble. And I want to praise IBM in this case . . .
They sent a key executive of IBM with me to West Berlin, we spent two days and looked at the collections, and clearly they were convinced that indeed this would be an exhibition that IBM would be proud of.
Now moving on from there. When considering books such as "Metropolitan Cats"--many of you may have seen it; it is beautifully designed and a very fine book, I think--takes precedence, if such a book can take precedence for reasons of marketability over such indispensable publications as the two-volume catalogue raisonne of the Metropolitan's collection of tapestries, which was completed by its expert, Edith Standen, three years ago and sits on a shelf for lack of subsidy, then I think museums will have a problem in the future. When a trade edition is a good prospect, a book is published. When a trade edition is not, such as our catalogue of 16th-century drawings, the book is again put on the shelf or at least threatened to be shelved by the finance committee.
When the burden of the director and the staff increasingly is to justify projects that have no financial return, the basic mission of the museum indeed might no longer be served as well by the program that is being proposed. When you have to count on a premium of results, rather than on quality, I think you have a real threat for the future.
I refer very briefly to increased public appeal. It is, of course, an extremely beneficial thing. We depend upon it. We exist for it. We've even entered an era in which community interest, almost a proprietary interest, in the museum takes place. Museum's gains are off the art pages and increasingly onto the news pages. This can lead in certain instances to superficiality and sensationalism in the media.
Are art and the public in danger of being exploited rather than served? . . .
Now I'm getting to my main point. And that is that we accept, and I think it is understandable, all of the outside pressures--financial, popular and so forth. One eye on the budget, one eye on public appeal, and that illusory Cyclopian third eye, which museum people seem to have, on quality. But there is something on the horizon which I find very threatening and that is internal pressures; that could alter the very core and quality of mind behind every museum function.
When a curator cannot install a case--by case, I mean a pedestal--shall we say, without going to the finance office, getting an appropriation and a budget line; when catalogues are influenced by book sales; when exhibitions are influenced by attendance, there is a sense that people within the institutions must strike some sort of a balance, compromise for every project.
Every curator, every educator, every conservator wants to demonstrate a certain modicum of fiscal responsibility and managerial skills. Now how do you reconcile this with pure research? The director is here and there to keep an eye on the balance and the requisite equilibrium, to serve the public best. What he requires from his staff is what humanists see as distance, reflection, an immersion in one's own field.
I don't want my staff to come to me and say this idea is good and will sell. That's my job. I want them to come to me with the most recondite, arcane exhibition proposal. I will make the decision as to how many footnotes and whether it will be a trade edition. When that state of mind starts to filter from the top and the outside into the sacrosanct infrastructure of the museum, then I think the role of the director in the next decade will be to fight for and preserve the values and the standards that come out of that inner sanctum of pure research and traditional values.